What Makes Literature Great?

A Contribution from Comicdom

Book of Hours, by Jeff Tabaco, with Creative Commons licenceSometimes the writing that affects us most is simpler than we’d like to admit. Occasionally, context outweighs convention and the comic book can offer more of substance to mull over than a dozen learned tomes. Right, you’re thinking, as if . . . But consider for a while Bill Willingham’s comic masterpiece, Fables.

Now in its seventy-first issue, Fables has scooped Willingham and his main artist Mark Buckingham numerous Eisner Awards, the American comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. It’s one of the more successful titles managed by Vertigo, the ever so slightly avant-garde imprint of DC Comics. The Fables community here on the Internet is very active, and as Kieran Bennett made obvious in a blog post recently, ever ready to stamp on perceived deviations from the quality it expects.

Beauty, Prince Charming, Flying Monkey and Flycatcher, Fables 53, copyright Bill Willingham & DC ComicsBut what makes Fables particularly worth our attention is more than success or failure in a fanboy popularity contest. The series speaks to childhood and adult days alike, combining the rigour of contemporary life with the lackadaisical fantasy of stories read a lifetime ago, cast in new shapes and given new meaning.

Willingham carries with him the central tradition of fantasy writing, casting about for old archetypes with which to people his tales. Dark days have fallen on the many worlds of story; the rise of a crushing empire has pushed the best figures of the old fables and some of the new into our world. No less than in an upmarket New York neighbourhood.

So we have exiles from tales you might remember – Cinderella, Sindbad, the Arabian Nights, Little Red Riding Hood and a wealth of others – cut adrift in our mundane world, straining to cope with displacement and the disappointment of the ‘mundy’ lives we lead more comfortably. Their community, too, is more like our own than the benevolent autocracies they were forced to leave behind. Its creaky but barely democratic form of government, its security concerns, the way its citizens are disciplined and punished all point toward our own ways.

From the more pristine pages of the past Willingham dumps his characters in the grime of the everyday.

What, then, can we make of this muddle? Artful, manipulative Geppetto is the evil all-father, the Adversary supported in his reign by unrelenting wooden soldiers shaped in the image of Is this Rome? (fable house), by Giampaolo Macorig, with Creative Commons licencehis first son, Pinocchio. Cinderella is a spy, the frog prince – once and again a noble sovereign – for now a lowly janitor. Prince Charming is a conniving mayor, Jack of all the tales an outcast and the Big Bad Wolf still discontent after all these years. Except that now he’s in human form. Most of the time. And he’s married to Snow White, who’s no less prone to politicking than her fabulous compatriots.

Willingham gives these characters their own lives, in much the same way that Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood have done in recent years. But leave aside calls for the supremacy of the written word alone – these stories where meant to be illustrated in all of their forms. Mark Buckingham’s panels bustle and overflow with activity, motifs spilling into the margins. Even his night scenes speak of activity that metaphor alone couldn’t capture. Many of the various plotlines play out in the dark and in muted, contemplative indoor scenes.

Above all, Fables is about introspection, about asking yourself what you should believe in and how you should live your life. Should we triumph in comfort or risk all for our ideals? In the most recent issues, the fables of New York have been preparing for an assault on the homeworlds. Already they’ve established a beach-head against the cruel emperor and the drums of war are beating ever more loudly.

Snow White and Flycatcher the Frog Prince, Fables 26, copyright Bill Willingham & DC Comics

But too many refugees have lived the same fantasy only to see it grind away with time. There seems little doubt that Willingham won’t continue to mediate the fantastic with the mundane and crash the whole edifice down upon his characters again. That’s what makes literature great – the emotional framework always subverted, the world laid bare in fiction.

There is nothing less remarkable in Fables than there was when Charles Perrault wrote his tales as mild critiques of power in the court of Louis the XIV or the Brothers Grimm collated their own in Kassel under French occupation during the Napoleonic Wars. Each effort speaks to its times and to the public imagination, to practicalities and possibilities.

The real puzzle is that more people don’t recognise the importance of comics like Fables as literature in our increasingly multimedia, text-subverted world.

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3 Responses to What Makes Literature Great?

  1. and as Kieran Bennett made obvious in a blog post recently, ever ready to stamp on perceived deviations from the quality it expects.

    Damn right!

    Agree with your assessment that comics can indeed form literature. Heck, Watchmen, need I say more?

    As for stamping on the author, there is just something about comics that leads their audience to feel a great deal of ownership over the story. We feel we have a stake in the story, and if anything, I reckon this shows that Willingham has indeed created something lasting, perhaps even worthy of description as literature.

  2. that should read “something about Fables”, I’ve never actually had much of an interest in comics!

  3. Mike Poole says:

    Kieran, yes, I see your point. Brain K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man has a similar following, even though it recently finished (that hearkens back to Watchmen as well, I guess). In that sense fan forums and postings are a sort of participatory exercise – something I’ll have to think more about.

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